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Sudan's street confronts a new transition deal
Raga Makawi explains why the popular movements oppose the agreement signed this month by the military and some political parties
Image: Al-Jazeera, 19 December 2022
On December 5, Sudan’s military signed a transition agreement with several political parties, signaling an end to fourteen months military rule following the October 2021 coup. The deal was largely rejected by the popular movements, however, as they continued to protest demanding full civilian rule, meaningful transitional justice, and an end to the repeated cycles of military impunity. Despite strong support from the international community, the agreement has struggled to overcome the deep mistrust between the military and the political movements and to present a clear pathway towards genuine democratic change. The violent, repressive response by the post-agreement government to the protests only exacerbated those concerns and deepened the political rifts.
To make sense of the current state of play in Sudan, I reached out to Raga Makawi. In July, I reviewed Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy, the exceptionally useful and timely book about the 2018 Sudanese uprising and the subsequent turbulent transition that she wrote with Willow Berridge, Justin Lynch and Alex de Waal. I learned so much from that book that I’ve followed her writing and online commentary closely ever since. She is an MSc student at Oxford University, and a researcher on the LSE/PeaceRep program researching civic politics in Sudan post-revolution. She’s also an editor of the excellent African Arguments book series. Follow her on Twitter at @MakawiRaga.
We spoke for almost an hour last week, and I’m delighted to share that conversation with you today. I’ve edited the transcript for clarity and length.
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Marc Lynch: Thanks for taking the time to talk! Your book about Sudan was really exactly the book I was looking for to understand the revolution and its aftermath, and it’s great to be able to get some updated insights from you today. So, two weeks ago, we saw a deal finally achieved between the ruling military regime and parts of the protest movement. What what was in the deal, and how does it differ from the 2019 transition agreement? What should we be paying attention to?
Raga Makawi: The 14 principles in the preamble of the agreement contain the most important principles in relation to the critical juncture Sudan is in right now: the reiteration of the civic nature of governance in Sudan that fully excludes all military involvement; the peaceful transition of power through fair and free elections; the non-religious nature of the state – though it doesn’t specifically mention the adoption of secularism; and the need for transitional justice to address ongoing and past violations.
These to a large extent resemble what we saw in the 2019 agreement. But added to this is a more detailed account of introducing jurisprudence at the transitional stage to institute the rule of law through kicking off a process for drafting the Constitutional by a group of experts and the establishment of a Transitional Constitutional Council alongside a Sovereign Council and a Ministers Council.
There’s also two provisions in the second section on transitional tasks which builds on the minimal achievements from the transition period between 2019 and 2021. These are, first, pushing forward with completing the implementation of the Juba peace agreement. And second, pushing forward with the dismantling of the former Islamist regime through a revision of the work and decisions of the anti-corruption committee, which itself was dismantled and its members unlawfully detained by the Junta after the 2021 coup.
While there seems to be a lot of continuity with the transition period, though, the actual disruptions are much larger if you consider the evolution of groups that have made up the post revolution political elite. I believe that General Burhan is leading a highly successful fractioning strategy that ensures continuity of the basic elements of the constitutional declaration while disrupting their ability to implement any meaningful agreements or provisions that change the status quo.
Before we get into that, can I ask some details? Like, who will be on the Constitutional Committee?
It doesn't say, actually, the agreement itself doesn't specify. So that's the problem. I mean, it does say that it will be elected, as will the members of the Ministers Council and the Sovereign Council. But it doesn't specify who those would be, so it very much resembles the 2019 process in terms of the unclarity and the lack of transparency that harmed the transition.
Yeah. And when and when it says no military involvement, what does that mean, exactly?
So, again, basically, it doesn't break it down and that’s one of the big problems. Burhan in his more recent speeches has mentioned that the military will withdraw from all forms of politics, and that they will refrain, or you know confine themselves, to matters of public defense. Even the Ministry of Defense will fall under a civilian Prime Minister according to the new agreement, which wasn't something that was agreed upon in the 2019 version, so this time around it seems even that they're making more concessions. But to what degree one can trust what they say is obviously debatable. There’s a lot of history here and there’s good reasons for the opposition to not trust the military.
Okay, and then one more question, what about the mention of transitional justice in the agreement? Is it the same issues?
So transitional justice is mentioned, yes. But again, it's only in a very broad way. If you compare it with the 2019 agreement, you could tell it was drafted with the priority and aim of dealing decisively with crimes against the public and ending impunity of those in power. The previous agreement provided a detailed outline as to how transitional justice will be achieved. It included the creation of Truth and Reconciliation committees, with the pathway to transitional justice prescribed with more care and detail. But there’s no such detail in this shorter, kind of skeleton, document.
In addition to that, there have been whispers in the corridors of power about how this agreement was only endorsed on the back of a promise that, you know, the Junta would not be held accountable for crimes against humanity, basically giving them impunity. Yeah, impunity.
So, what you’re saying is that on the face of it this seems like a fairly good deal, but it’s a lot less detailed and there’s a lot less reason for the street to trust the promises. Right?
Yeah, and there’s more than that. I think it's important to note that what's clearly different between this agreement and the one from 2019 is that the previous one based its constitutional authority on the popular legitimacy of the revolution. And this time around that's not the case. So, the street sees the Freedom and Change Coalition kind of reproducing the same elite politics through a new agreement, with complete disengagement from popular politics. And from the street’s point of view that’s a major shortcoming, and it shows in the weakness of the structure of the agreements itself.
In addition to the historical challenges obvious from the reproduction of the same 2019 process which ended in the Junta’s 2021 military coup, some sections within the ensemble are contradictory, suggesting the incompatibility of a genuine peaceful civic transition with the present power structures. For example, the third section of the framework agreement on the structure of the transitional authority stipulates in its seventh provision that even though the security and defense council will be led by a civilian prime minister, six members of the Juba peace agreement will be adjunct to it which in turn undermines the civic nature of the agreement through militarizing the armed groups.
Look, the 2019 agreement to a very large degree reflected the living realities, demands, visions, imaginations of the uprising. This one seems to a large degree to only reflect the imaginary of elite politics, more concerned with order on the surface rather than dealing with, you know, the root causes of the many pressing issues. That’s what’s missing: constitutional authority deriving from the popular legitimacy which the revolution has enabled and articulated in 2019. The failure to engage the youth and neighborhood committees which are considered the expression of the public will signals a break with the essence of the transitional process which is popular legitimacy.
But also, at the same time, we must acknowledge that there is an understandable tendency to reactionism among the public. When the people hear the kind of promises that are advanced by the military, by the Junta, some say that we should never trust them again, and others are saying that if the Junta is promising this or that then maybe we should try, at least make some concessions, and test them. And so, the Youth Committees, the institutions of the revolution, the popular movements, they are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are being forced to make a decision that isn't even in their hands. And as a consequence, these divisions further fracture and already very fragile process.
The popular movements had already outlined a Charter that includes at the granular level details of issues that are at core of any political process, and they believe that the agreement overlooks or even violates them. The agreement is seen as inherently contradictory to the popular political project. Furthermore, there is a distrust between the pro-democracy movement and the political elites, the latter are seen as trying to constantly exploit and undermine them for their own use. Without trust the process that leads to a supposed ‘agreement’ is unlikely. I mean, there is no collective association or legwork that goes towards building an agreement with buy-in from all parties. In the absence of state and civic institutions that usually facilitate it, the agreement is seen as a mouthpiece of elite politics which the public wont back.
How did we get here? How did the Freedom and Change Coalition get so detached from the street?
The mobilization that has defined the intense political life of Sudan since the 2018 revolution is marked by grass roots activism. That means people thinking, deciding and acting on these decisions through mechanisms and institutions that they have devised themselves, which is the epitome of democracy as a well as citizenhood. The 2019 agreement reflected these rights, which were then curtailed not just by the coup but also by the actions and decisions of the transitional government between 2019 and 2021, even before the coup. So the 2019 transition came at the cost of popular political mobilization despite being enabled by it. And the opposition haven’t forgotten that.
Even now, the pressure on the Junta to consider readmitting the Freedom and Change Coalition to government would have not been possible if it wasn’t for the relentless pressure from popular opposition on the streets, particularly the committees. Yet, the absence of the committees and their imagined ideal of a new polity, a vision that’s well articulated in the Charters and popularly accepted, is reflected in the weakness of the current framework. The 2019 agreement had detailed outlines of a collective resolution approach that mimicked the grassroots politics of the popular democracy movement, intersectional and horizontally widespread with a serious effort to consider all voices and concerns.
The 2022 agreement on the other hand is an ambiguous skeleton version of its predecessor, which checks off the most popular points in the international community’s agenda but with no roadmap to implementation. In short it will not survive the machinations of the armed actors now holding state power and the street knows it. This clearly shows in the farce that accompanies the signing process; unabated repression of the public on the streets, sham military trails of underaged children without due justice, the use and abuse of state institutions to glorify military leaders such as the rights commission that nominated Hemedti for a human rights prize. The shamble of transition continues though no one believes it, I assume even those who have signed.
I think it's also important when talking about the FFC to differentiate between who it is that makes up the opposition in Sudan. The composition of the opposition really varies with the fluidity of the political terrain. Viewing the opposition as a political spectrum where actors negotiate access in relation to each other’s agendas is a better means of understanding the process that broke the agreement and reproduced it in the span of a little over a year. These elite coalitions fracture and assemble depending on what’s on offer.
As such we can’t assign the tag of “opposition” without reservation to all parties or groups who simply oppose the Junta, as they could still be associating with it through a conduit. Opposition instead serves to describe the fractious process, a political domain in which actors historically specifically cluster for political performance, to use Tilly’s concept. This approach to opposition has had its toll historically on reforming political practice in Sudan. Even more so since the coup, because the emergence of a consolidated oppositional movement with a clearly articulated agenda and the means to pursue it was squandered by oppositional fracturing for short term gains, as the fastest proven way to be admitted to the arena a of politics is to cut a deal with the military.
In the case of the popular pro-democracy movement the streets are embodied by the Neighborhood Committees, you know, the Youth Movement. There were a number of reasons why from the onset they said that they wouldn't back this agreement. One because they noted the weaknesses of the agreement itself and the contradictory aspects of some of its main provisions that I mentioned earlier. They also remember the failure of its predecessor to bring about any peace, political strength, stability or a real transition to democracy. And second, you know, they reject it because it violates, the principle of the “no negotiation, no legitimacy, no agreement with the Military Council.” They formulated that in very strong terms, it's a position that all members of the committees have stood strong on, which also shows that they have a more cohesive and integrated approach to political association.
The revolution clearly understands and states that no transition can happen through or in partnership with the military Junta. Members of the youth committees see the agreement as a settlement in the negative connotation of the word that falls short of their aspirations and is a means to undercut any real political and social transformation.
So they're against negotiating in principle.
Of course. They are against any transition that would involve the military, in any way, shape, or form. And you see, the thing is the Freedom and Change Coalition always knew this, this wasn't wasn't a secret. It was published early on by the youth committees and was publicly pronounced through their Charter. No agreement that comes through the military would be endorsed by the public, or the by the popular movement, and so the popular movement sees this as an intentional attempt by the FFC to try to break the unified position of the Popular Movement itself, and that might very well be the case.
So between the FFC and the popular movement, is it possible to get a sense of where the broader Sudanese public is on this do they just want to move on to normality or they still largely with the demands, of the street, or is it too hard to say?
I think it's a bit difficult to say. I mean people are struggling, that's for sure. I mean specifically on issues that have to do with security, people now are at the stage of needing to go back to sense of normalization, meaning wanting to not be shot down in the street, their kids not being killed randomly by security forces.
Add to this the level of inflation, the food insecurity, You know issues around economic access have made life in Khartoum almost impossible. For the majority of even the middle class, I mean, let alone those in the informal economy, so I guess it's a bit difficult. Maybe people would be having multiple positions, where they would not trust in the process, I mean they have a near memory example of how the agreement went down less than two years ago and ended in the coup. So, the trust that enabled the legitimacy of the FFC to claim that they were the ones who could help people transition to a democracy was largely undermined.
And don’t forget there has been massive loss of life.
Yeah. The public doesn’t trust the process but maybe hopes for a restoration of a degree of order returning, that the amount of violence and killing of the youth on the streets would end. And that’s used as a bargaining chip, with armed actors getting concessions, with very little return for the public themselves. So, it’s complicated.
Okay. So where are the Islamists, the former regime, in all of this?
Obviously, they continue to be present along at least two levels. While the leadership was pushed out by the revolution and also by the military, and by members of the opposition, still they continue to mobilize. They've got their networks, they've got their connections, and they they still have pretty potent tools in their hands. They have leverage to be able to be admitted again in one form or another to elite politics. I mean, earlier on when the 2019 transition was being negotiated, members of the more let's say liberal progressive wing of the Islamists tried to kind of reinvent themselves as new political parties, to distance themselves from the NCP. And this mobilization is ongoing, and they have a lot of sources of social and economic power to back up their efforts.
Right. All the all the Islamic Banks, and Islamic Finance Institutions.
Right, the leverage they continue to have is there. You know control of finances, I mean, they created this state, and they very much still understand the ins and out of it. And they continue to be the number one actors in the market, the merchants, you know they set up this informal economy. They know the ins and outs of it, not to mention that for twenty or thirty years, this empowerment system that they've created through the state bureaucracy means that it was only their people, the ones who are ideologically aligned to them, who received the necessary education, the necessary training, to manage the state and the economy.
Let's not forget that their offspring make up an entire generation of well-educated cadres who now manage these networks that extend beyond the Arab world and Turkey, and into the halls of power in Washington. So, they've got this manpower, they've got this capital power, they've got state power, and even if it looks as if it's dormant for the moment it is still very palpable.
One interesting aspect of how this plays out is that in the last three years, despite all the space and authority, there was very little intellectual production on the part of the FFC to counter the hegemony of the Islamists and their political project. They were very much consumed with state power, with producing politics in the old ways, you know a bunch of men behind closed doors. And they left the public space.
But people were hungry for intellectual discourse around governance, around politics, around nationhood, and the space was left empty. Many remnants of Islamist ideology and institutions the Islamist created as the only means of knowledge production are still very present and functioning, because they were attached to everyday public institutions like the mosque, the university, the civil bureaucracies. And even during the revolution, with the calls for a new Sudan, people were still receiving the ideological rhetoric of the NCP through their daily encounters with public institutions. These institutions are trying and sometimes managing successfully to create an intellectual discord among the youth committees and the public.
Last question. Why is the international community positive on the agreement, given all these problems?
I did mention in passing earlier the eagerness of the international community to preside over a deal signing, if for nothing but their historic role of managing order in the peripheries, no matter how much that mismanagement has proved to produce disorder as we have seen in Sudan over the past years.
I think it’s important to start promulgating within policy discourse and process the crisis of the ‘expert’. Academia has managed to advance a well-developed theory as to the intersections of professionalism, international relations/ assistance and transnational power, but this narrative is yet to feature in debates on Western intervention.
Sudan and other countries of the global south have suffered their use as halfway houses for development and diplomatic cadre rehabilitation from which people graduate to better jobs, whereas the legacies of their decisions and actions stay behind accumulating disasters. Think of all the rotating faces and figures that have come and gone, claiming expertise and tasks ticked with nothing to show for it in real life. Experts on Sudan and I imagine the development sector at large fail upwards while the country is left in a state of further disarray. I don’t think they should be blamed for the failure of a system that was never designed to address structural issues and bring about any real transition. But they need to realize that they are effectively blocking a transition if they step into the shoes of the people and attempt to do their job on their behalf.
Finally, beyond the role of experts, the shape geopolitics has taken more recently with the involvement of business means that power is deepening through the practice of regional politics. The rise of new political networks that joins politicians and experts across the metropoles of the Gulf and North Africa, delegated by Washington and London suggests this is the new way of politicking with benefits beyond the usual peacemaking.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us!
Abu Aardvark's MENA Academy is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.